Travels with Auntie: War Stories
“I was impressed by the calm of this crowd. No-one was shrieking, no-one was running. A young woman stopped me and said, “ I want to contact my father, can you help me?” That was my first interview.”
Robert Holloway was AFP’s UN Correspondent when the planes struck the Twin Towers, and smashed through his normal day’s work. He was talking at our Student Conference in Beirut – Reporting Conflict. Over 120 keen students had turned out on a Sunday Morning to join us at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.
Robert continued: “There was suddenly the most terrifying noise – if you can imagine a jet flying just above your head. And then there was total panic. A man fell to his knees, “Lord Jesus, Save Us. It is the end of the World”. It was the South Tower collapsing. “
“ I was working on pure adrenalin. The impact of what had happened didn’t hit me until later that day.“ It took Robert an hour and a half to walk to his office, and 30 failed phone calls for each one where he managed to file a report. Communications had stopped and transport had stopped. But the rumours hadn’t. There were stories of a policeman saving himself by surfing down the Towers; of one of the hijackers’ passports being found in the street; of dead bodies being ferried across the Hudson River.
“What fear can do is suspend your critical judgement , you become cynical, pessimistic and there is huge pressure on you to conform.” And then, in the following days, there is the aftermath says Robert, “The psychological impact of trauma – grief, anger, fear – becomes hard to bear.”
Would you willingly walk into a war zone?
“I go to tell the story , we take risks out of curiosity, out of a desire to tell the story. Curiosity is the first requirement of any journalist”.
Words from Sami Ketz, Bureau Chief for AFP in Beirut and a war reporter. He was talking about his experiences in Iraq.
“ War is the broken life of the conscript and the stoicism of his Mother ,” continued Sami, “It is also courage and humanity”. Then he told us about Mohammed Abbas Hassan. Mohammed was a 40 year old bus driver living in Baghdad. As the conflict got worse and worse and life for ordinary Iraqis got more and more terrifying, the bus drivers emerged as unlikely heroes. Mohammed, spent every night sleeping by his bus so that he could go to work in the morning. He didn’t see his wife, he didn’t see his children. His bus became a taxi, an ambulance and a hearse. “ People were so afraid, passengers asked me to drive them straight to their doors. I did it. It was the human conscience that made me do it.”
Stories apart, there was also plenty of advice on good journalistic practices and discussion of how to keep sane and accurate in the constant media storm we work in. But the subject that raised probably the most debate was that of “War Tourists”.
In Syria last year 87 journalists/artists/writers were killed according to Ayman Mhanna from the SKeyes Center. One of his concerns is the vulnerability of the “ War Tourist” – the freelance journalist, often young and hungry – who parachutes themselves into a conflict without the training, back up and insurance of a big media outlet. The phenomenon is “fuelled by the Western Media who buy their stories, “ says Ayman, and the journalists are being killed and kidnapped. But, Sami had a different perspective – for him it was all about the work, “I saw War Tourists (in Syria) and they are giving us stories that are wonderful!” . And“ In a conflict it is a way for young journalists to make a name, you have to give them a chance to, “ added Emilie Sueur of L’Orient Le Jour.
As the sessions ended and we all got ready to go and eat, fuel up on coffee and get to say all the things we hadn’t had time for. I asked the million dollar question – “ So how many of you want to be war correspondent?” About 15 students got to their feet – brave souls all!